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Just Jack

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At first, everyone thought he was joking.

“What are you most looking forward to about retirement?” the reporter had asked at the press conference Jack called to announce his retirement at the end of the upcoming season.

“Staying home and being a house husband.”

The response was met with chuckles and few rolled eyes. Jack Zimmermann, Stanley Cup champion, hockey robot who worked harder than God, desired nothing more than to stay home? This had to be one of his “jokes.”

“Rumor has it you’ve had offers to coach,” one reporter said.

“I heard you were looking into buying a stake in a team?”

“No, ah.” Jack smiled. “I have a two-year-old, and I’m really just looking forward to being a dad and husband. My husband Eric has supported me from my first day in the NHL, and now that his career is really beginning to take off I want to be there for him the same way he’s been for me.”

“What about coaching? Do you think you’ll coach?”

“Ha ha. Maybe pee wee hockey when my daughter is old enough.”

Over the course of the season, reporters tried to get the scoop, sure there was more to Jack’s retirement plan he was keeping quiet. He continued to give them same answer: “I’m just looking forward to being a dad and husband.” Sometimes he’d change it up with a more playful response if it was a reporter he liked: “My husband Eric and I like to joke I’m going to be his trophy husband.”

“Isn’t that a little …” The reporter searched for the right word. “Emasculating?”

“Have you met my husband? If you met him, you’d want to be his trophy husband, too.”

1

The first time it happens, Jack isn’t prepared.

He has Ellie wrapped in her towel and is trying to keep her warm on their way to the locker room after her swim class. He’s got her sandals in one hand and a diaper bag hanging off of his shoulder. He can feel a wet spot growing on the front of his shirt where she’s clinging to him like a baby koala.

“Excuse me.” A woman holding the hand of a small boy is blocking the door to the locker room, looking at Jack in an awestruck way. “Are you …” 

“Euh …” Jack braces himself for the inevitable question his been fielding his entire life. He’s always tried to be gracious with fans, but he’s never been comfortable with the attention when he’s with Ellie. Mentally, he prepares for a photo request.

“… Eric Bittle’s husband?” the woman finishes. “Oh my goodness, we love his show. I watched every episode when I was on maternity leave with this one.”

This … is something new. This is kind of nice. It’s kind of awesome, actually. “Yes,” Jack says, finding the voice he uses with his own fans. “Eric is my husband.”

The woman beams. “My favorite part of the show is when he mentions you. His stories are just so cute. Is it true you met in college and didn’t get along at first?”

“We … had our differences,” Jack says, shifting Ellie a bit.

“Is he as cute in person as he is on TV?”

“Ha ha. Cuter, actually.” Even before they fell in love, Jack could admit Bitty was cute, and after 12 years together — six of them married — it’s still true.

“Would you mind—“ the woman lowers her voice “—this is so embarrassing, but do you have any tips for making his pie crust? It always comes out so crumbly when I try to make it.”

“Ah.” This is easy. This is one of the first things Bitty taught him, before they were even dating. Before Jack could even admit to himself that he liked him. “It probably means your dough is too dry. You may need to add a few tablespoons of ice water.”

Thank you,” the woman says, as if Jack’s just handed her the keys to a new car. 

The following week, the mothers and nannies spend the entire swim lesson chatting Jack up and asking his advice for their most stubborn baking conundrums.

“What’s your favorite pie?” somebody asks as Jack’s helping Ellie with her back float.

“Will he be filming new episodes soon? They keep showing that one re-run where he makes chicken tenders,” someone calls from the other side of the pool when he’s helping Ellie down the slide.

He takes the questions he can’t answer home. “How do you prevent your crust from burning?” he asks over dinner that night. Taylor had been particularly insistent that Jack get the answer; her mother-in-law is coming into town and apparently the one way to impress her is with an Eric Bittle dessert.

“You’ve only seen me do it a million times, Sweetpea. Make a little foil collar to put around the crust. Otherwise it’ll burn. Tell her there’s a picture on my website.”

“What about jam? Joanna wants to know why her apricot jam is sour.”

Bitty giggles and shakes his head but patiently answers all of Jack’s questions, which Jack relays to the swim moms. At the end of the six-week swim session, Bitty surprises everyone by showing up with cupcakes for the kids. Everybody wants a picture with him. Nobody wants a picture with Jack. He couldn’t be happier.

2

Even four seasons in, the most popular episode of Bitty’s Food Network show is, by far, the first season episode “Jack’s Favorites,” which was filmed before his retirement and became the first in a series. Although it’s not the first episode in which Bitty name drops his “handsome husband, Providence Falconer Jack Zimmermann,” it is the first episode in which Jack appears on camera. Thanks to re-runs (and a meme that keeps getting resurrected), Jack is — two years post-retirement — recognized for that more often than he is for his own professional accomplishments.

The Atlanta trip is a spur of the moment thing, thanks to generous in-laws who offered to take Ellie for a night during their annual summer trip. Over the years the city has grown on Jack, even if the weather hasn’t, and he and Bitty have made a tradition of trying a new-to-them restaurant each time they visit.

It’s a good thing Bitty got caught up in a conversation with the owner of a little bakery they stopped in for an afternoon snack, because Jack is able to take advantage of the opportunity to step inside the restaurant next door — one Bitty has been dropping hints about since their visit over the holidays because “the chef is doing absolutely exquisite things with oysters, Jack.” 

He waits while the hostess checks the evening’s schedule.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Zimmermann, we’re completely booked for this evening. If you’d like to make a reservation, our next available date —” 

“It’s okay,” Jack assures her. “We’re just in town for the weekend. I was hoping to surprise my husband while we’re here.”

The hostess really does look apologetic. “Chef Bradley has a casual dining restaurant a few blocks away. There’s usually a little bit of a wait on Saturday evenings, but I think you’ll enjoy it just as much.”

“Thank you. I’ll make sure we make plans in advance next time we’re in town.” Jack’s turning to head back outside when he runs smack into Bitty.

“There you are, Sweetpea. Get lost?” Bitty’s grin is wide. 

“Ah, no. Just checking to see if they have any openings for tonight. They’re booked solid.”

“You sweet man. Guess we’ll just have to plan another trip soon.” Bitty turns his attention to the hostess. “Do you have a card we can take?”

Jack is the first to notice she’s gaping at them. No, not them. She was thoroughly unimpressed by him just a few minutes ago. It’s Bitty she’s staring at, wide-eyed and a little red in the face. “You’re —”

Bitty nods.

“And that means you’re —” she points an accusing finger at Jack “ —You should have said something. We’re all such big fans. Of both of you. The ‘Jack’s Favorites’ episode is very popular with our staff. ‘Eat more protein?’ I’ve always wondered, is that really the first thing you said to him?”

“He also used to get me up at four in the morning for checking practice,” Bitty supplies. “We still managed to fall in love.”

“He just had to knock some sense into me,” Jack says. Bitty elbows him in the ribs. 

She laughs politely. “Our pastry chef says he learned everything he knows about pie crust from your book,” she says, referencing a chapter in Bittle’s Baking Guide.”

“I’m actually revising it right now to reflect some new techniques I’ve developed,” Bitty tells her. “If you give me his name, I’ll be sure to send him a copy of the new edition when it comes out.” 

The hostess appears to be as charmed by Bitty’s radiant smile as Jack is. “You know,” she she says conspiratorially, taking another look at the schedule, “it looks like we did have a last minute cancellation for this evening. I can get you in at eight-thirty, if that’s not too late.”

“That would be wonderful,” Bitty says. “We sure do appreciate it.”

“It’s our pleasure. We’d be honored to have you dine with us.”

Bitty waits until they’re back out on the street to completely lose it. “Jack. Did she just give us an impossible-to-get reservation because of me?” He makes a strangled little sound halfway between a laugh and a cry.

“Pretty sure it wasn’t me, bud.”

“Oh lord, it wasn’t. I ‘knocked some sense’ into you? What was that?” 

“The truth.”

Bitty snorts. “I’ve gotta call Mama. She’ll never believe we just got into Atlanta’s hottest restaurant because I’m me.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Jack says, “you’re kind of a big deal. You’ve always been a big deal to me. Are you surprised everyone else is finally noticing? You’ve worked hard for this. I’m only surprised this hasn’t happened sooner.” 

“Why Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty says, taking his hand as they meander down the street, “you may tell the worst dad jokes, but you still know how to charm a boy.”

3

“But Daddy, I want you to come to my school!” Ellie throws herself, face first, onto her bed with the dramatic flair of a leading lady scorned. Bitty reminds himself to thank his mother-in-law for that move.

He’s been trying to comfort her for going on a half hour, to no avail. Even with a schedule of his own making, thanks to the barn they converted to a test kitchen and television studio when they purchased their property here in Vermont, he can’t always avoid professional obligations that take him out of town. There are always one or two school events or recitals he misses each year, and this time it happens to be Career Day at Wilson Elementary School.

“Sweetheart,” Bitty says, lying down next to his daughter and tentatively rubbing her back. “I know you want me to be at school to tell your friends all about what I do. But I have some meetings with my editor in New York. You remember Minerva; we visited her office last summer? I have to talk to her about the new cookbook I’m working on.”

It’s ironic, Bitty thinks, that his work is preventing him from speaking at Career Day. But this meeting has already been put off twice, and to delay it further could mean delays to the book.

“I know Papa’s real excited to talk to your classmates,” he tries.

From the pillow Ellie’s buried her face in, a muffled snort.

“Do you want to tell me why you don’t want Papa there?”

Slowly, Ellie rolls over to face her father. “Dad. Papa is so boring.”

“Oh, honey. You know that’s not true.” 

“He doesn’t do anything.” 

“Your papa,” Bitty says, “won the Stanley Cup in his rookie year and went on to win two more. He was the first out player in the NHL, which gave a lot of other athletes the courage to come out. He had a big, exciting career before you were even born, and when he retired he decided he wanted his job to be taking care of you and your brother. He makes your lunches and makes sure you get to school on time and helps you with your homework. He walks Daisy every morning when I’m at work and you kids are at school. He’s very important to this family.”

“Boring,” Ellie pronounces, clearly unconvinced.

“He takes care of me, too,” Bitty continues. “I may be the one with the cooking show, but Papa makes dinner every night. He takes all of the pictures for my books and taste tests all of my new recipes. Every single one. He comes with me to dinners and events. And he still goes on TV to talk about hockey sometimes.”

“But you —” Ellie breathes out a deep sigh “— met Mickey and Elsa.”

He can’t stop the laugh that escapes. “Honey. Is that what this is about?” Last year, he filmed a holiday special at Disneyland. Although they normally avoid taking the kids out of school for vacations, they’d made an exception for this. The three days in Disneyland, complete with a behind-the-scenes tour, had been the highlight of their year.

“You made candy canes with Goofy,” Ellie pouts. That’s a move she learned from him.

“I did,” Bitty says. “And while I was filming that special, it was Papa who took you on all the rides and watched the parades with you.”

Ellie rolls her eyes, and Bitty has a brief flash of her as a teenager.

“Speaking of parades, have I ever shown you the pictures from Papa’s third Stanley Cup parade? You don’t remember it because you were just a baby, but you got to ride on the float with him. You were the cutest thing. He used to wear you strapped to his chest like a little koala. I tried, but you only ever wanted to be with Papa.” Bitty easily finds the photo in the favorites folder on his phone and shows it to Ellie, who manages the barest of smiles. “Papa,” he adds, “is very cool. And I think your friends will think so too.”

*

“So how’d Career Day go, Sweetpea?” Bitty asks when he and Jack have finally collapsed on the couch after they’ve done the dishes and put the kids to bed. Ellie gave her version of the day’s events over dinner, but based on the way Jack smiled throughout, Bitty’s certain there’s more to the story.

“Annie Singh’s mother sent me the video. Why don’t you see for yourself?” Jack pulls out his phone and finds the footage in his text messages. They lean against each other and watch as their daughter stands in front of the class to introduce him.

“My guest today is my papa, Jack Zimmermann,” Ellie announces, as poised as her grandmother presenting at the Golden Globes. “He’s here today because my dad is in New York for important meetings with his book editor.” At this, Ellie pauses, perhaps in anticipation of applause. “You probably know my papa because he’s always here at school helping in the library and picking up trash with the janitor. If a tall man with yellow shoes has ever yelled at you for not recycling your milk carton, that’s him.”

“Is she trying to be a comedian?” Bitty whispers.

“Wait for it,” Jack says.

“— but before he was a boring dad, my papa used to play hockey —”

“Aw, honey, I told her not to call you boring.”

“He won the Stanley Cup three times with the Providence Falconers, which is like winning the World Series but for hockey.” 

In the background, there’s a smattering of applause and cheers.

“Then he retired to take care of me and my brother because my dad writes books and has a TV show. Last year, Dad got to go to Disneyland for work. My brother and I got to get out of school to go with him. I’ve never been on TV with him, but sometimes Papa goes on his show —”

Bitty shakes his head in resignation. “I told her it was supposed to be about you.”

Jack presses his leg against Bitty’s. “She’s not wrong. I have been on your show.”

“I wanted her to understand that you’re part of history. And that even though you’re done with hockey, your job now is just as important as mine.”

Jack just laughs. “Are you kidding me, Bits? This is great. She’s only ever known a world where athletes can be out and successful. Someday, she’ll understand why what I did was so important for the sport, but she’s eight. As far as she remembers, all I’ve ever been is the ‘boring’ dad. I love being the boring dad.”

“Have I ever told you,” Bitty says, pulling Jack closer for a kiss, “that I find boring dads really attractive?”

“Mmm … you could tell me again.”

On Jack’s phone, Ellie is just finishing her speech. “— Everyone, please give it up for my papa, Jack Zimmermann.”

4

Jack is long past feeling like he has to protect Bitty every time they visit Madison — over the years he’s has proven more than capable of holding his own, in every situation — but sitting in the parking lot of the Monroe Golf & Country Club he can’t help but give him an out if he wants one. “You know we don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” he says, giving his hand a little squeeze for emphasis. “We can say one of the kids is sick.”

Bitty takes a deep breath. “I want to, honey. Besides, we flew all the way out here. I’d say it’s a little too late to back out now.”

“I just thought maybe you wouldn’t want to. You didn’t go to the last one.”

“I didn’t go to the last one because we had a newborn, you’d just won another Cup and had shoulder surgery, and I was drowning in edits for the first cookbook,” Bitty reminds him.

“God, remember when we thought that was busy?” 

“Remember when we thought life would slow down after you retired?” It hasn’t. Jack recalls sitting down with Bitty after that surgery, telling him he thought he had two more good years, tops, and together making a plan for what their future might look like when hockey was no longer a variable. It had been ambitious, but it hadn’t included a contract for a new cookbook every 18 months, another Food Network show, or a line of jams and jellies exclusive to Williams-Sonoma. It hadn’t included the move to Vermont or another baby. The past 10 years have been, as Bitty likes to say in interviews, “a happy blur.”

“It’s been long enough since I graduated,” Bitty says as he finally moves to get out of their rental car, “might as well let everyone have a good look at me and see I turned out okay.”

“More than okay, I’d say,” Jack says. “You’re probably the most successful graduate in your class.”

“Well,” Bitty preens, “Scotty Willis had two seasons in the NFL and got a Super Bowl ring. But I heard he moved back home and runs his in-laws’ used car dealership now.”

“Are you saying I’m the Scotty Willis in this relationship?”

“Let me buy you a used car dealership and you can be,” Bitty says, a saucy little smirk playing on his lips. He looks so handsome, so confident, that Jack can’t help but pull out his phone and take a quick picture. 

Jack.” He takes the phone from Jack’s hand and leans closer so they’re both in the frame. “Ready to do this?” he asks. Jack can tell he’s only a little nervous.

*

The first time Jack visited Madison, they’d had to hold hands in secret, too afraid of accidentally outing themselves to somebody who might tell the whole town — or the Bittles — to ever really relax. The difference, as Bitty confidently introduces Jack to his former high school classmates as his husband, is night and day. Jack is happy to take pictures as Bitty is pulled into group after group, and whatever these people may have been to him 20 years ago, tonight they’re nothing but adults who, softened by age and experience, have shucked off the insecurities of adolescence and grown into better versions of themselves.

“I’ll go get you a drink,” Jack offers when yet another group pulls Bitty over to “catch up.” He makes his way to the bar, where his arrival is heralded with loud cheers. “Dude!” a burly, ex-jock-looking guy says. “Really thought you weren’t going to make it.”

“Good to see you, man,” another says. “Been a long time. What’re you up to these days?”

Jack is suddenly reminded of Haus parties and lax bros named Chad. It’s easier to just smile and take selfies with these strangers than explain he was in rehab in Canada when these guys were high school freshmen.

He finds Bitty near the dessert table, laughing with a friendly-looking couple. “Hey, honey,” Bitty says, taking his glass of wine from Jack. “This is Alan and his wife Jordan. Alan and I played hockey together way-back-when.”

“Before he was an NCAA captain,” Alan says, “he was my captain.”

“And before I met Alan,” Jordan adds, “I spent a lot of evenings in my college dorm watching Eric’s vlog and teaching myself to bake.”

This seems to delight Bitty. “Gosh, even Jack hasn’t seen all of those old videos.”

“I probably knew you were in love with him before he did,” Jordan says. “My high school best friend and I used to Skype after every video and try to figure out if Eric’s ‘straight boy’ and his captain Jack and his partner were the same person.”

“Same person,” Jack says with a grin. “But not so straight after all, eh?”

“She did actually pay attention to more than the relationship intrigue,” Alan tells Bitty. “She made your flourless chocolate cake for our first date. When I found out it was my high school captain’s recipe, it seemed like fate.” 

Bitty’s melting. Jack can tell he’s about three seconds away from crying, so he quickly suggests a photo. He moves around them, trying to find just the right angle, but Alan and Jordan pull him in. “Get in here,” Jordan commands. “I’ve been waiting almost 20 years to meet Eric and his sweetheart.”

5

There’s a rumor that Eric Bittle’s husband occasionally works the register at Bits ’n’ Pieces, the little country store they own in Vermont. His most ardent fans make pilgrimages there hoping to score an elusive, store-exclusive jar of apricot jam and a glimpse of the even more elusive “Jack” Eric frequently name drops on his show and in his books.

The rumors are true. The house is too quiet when the kids are in school and Bitty’s traveling for work. Jack gets bored. Sometimes he’ll put a leash on Daisy, their aging black lab, and walk the mile from their farmhouse to the store to stock shelves or ring up customers for an hour or so. It keeps him busy until the kids get home. At 16 and 11, Ellie and Matthew no longer need Jack to walk them home from school. 

When Jack and Daisy arrive this afternoon their manager, Jade, points out a shipment of candles she hasn’t had a chance to unpack: “If you can restock the display and put the rest in the back, that would be awesome.”

Jack takes his time with the candle display, rearranging it and switching out the pine and sugar cookie scents for the more seasonally appropriate lemongrass and coastal linen. He so absorbed in his work he doesn’t notice the whispers behind him. “Excuse me,” one of the voices finally says, “we’re just wondering. Are you Jack?”

He turns in the direction of the voices and sees two women, each clutching a jar of blueberry jam. One is holding a copy of Bitty’s latest book, the other a tea towel with the Bits ’n’ Pieces logo embroidered on it.

“I am,” he says.

“I told you,” the blonde woman hisses under her breath. She redirects her attention to Jack. “We thought it was you. You look taller on TV.”

“But you’re cuter in person,” the brunette says. On the other side of the store, Jade is clearly suppressing her laughter. “Would you mind taking a picture with us?” she asks. “Otherwise, our friend Kylie is never going to believe we ran into you.”

He sets the candle he’s holding down. “Should we go outside and take it in front of the sign?” The sign is always a popular fixture in the customer photos that end up on social media.

“Does Eric ever stop by?” the brunette asks after Jade has taken a picture with each of their cameras. “Or is it just you?”

“He’s pretty busy these days,” Jack says. “But sometimes he stops in to sign more books or check in on things. I really only come in because I miss him when he’s away.” If his children were here they’d laugh at him, but it’s true. 

“That is so adorable,” the blonde woman coos. “You two are adorable. I love the way he’s always talking about you on the show. You can really tell you’re still in love.”

When the women have left, Jack finishes his candle display and begins to move the boxes off the floor.

“Glad those hockey muscles are still good for something,” comes a chirp from behind just as Jack is hefting the last box to take to the stock room. When he turns around, Bitty’s there, giving him that look that always makes him weak in the knees.

“You’re back early,” Jack says, surprised but happy to see his husband. 

“Last meeting got cancelled. I was able to get on an earlier flight.” 

“Ellie’s at Annie’s house and Matthew is bowling with Joey’s family. If my boss lets me off early, we can get dinner before they get home.”

“I can try to put in a good word with him.”

“Tell him I need a raise, too.” Jack winks at Bitty as he heads to the stock room. When he returns, Bitty’s waiting for him.

“I talked to your boss,” he reports, “and he said you can leave early. But he’d like more information about this raise. What are your terms?”

“Er, a kiss?”

“That all? You were working pretty hard when I walked in. Seems like that’s worth more than a kiss.”

“A kiss and —” Jack leans a little closer and whispers something in Bitty’s ear. He’s pleased with himself when he sees patches of pink rise on Bitty’s cheeks.

“I drove over,” Bitty says. “If we leave now, we’ll have time to do that before dinner.”

They leave so quickly they don't even notice the two women still standing in the parking lot. "Hey," the brunette says to her friend. "wasn't that —”

+1

“Excuse me …” The man approaches Jack and Bitty a little apprehensively. “Are you the Bittle-Zimmermanns?”

Bitty wraps an arm around Jack’s waist and pulls him a little closer. “That’s us.” Jack wonders which of them he’s a fan of. It’s a game they play, sometimes, and it isn’t always as easy as it would seem. There’s a surprising amount of crossover between hockey fans and Eric Bittle fans, although as the years go by Jack gets recognized for hockey less and less. Sometimes it still happens, if they’re in Providence or at an NHL event, but it’s a rare occurrence and that’s okay.

“Is that one yours? Number 15?”

They both follow his gaze to the track, where Ellie is warming up. 

“She’s ours,” Jack says. He looks at the man, trying to figure him out. He doesn’t look or act like a reporter. He reminds Jack of …

“She set a state record in the 1,500 as a sophomore,” the man says.

“She’s trying to break it today,” Bitty says, proud. Jack and Bitty exchange a look and Jack can see the question in his eyes. Bitty’s trying to place this guy, too.

“That’s what I’m here to talk to you about.”

A recruiter. He reminds Jack of a college recruiter.

Bitty gets it, too. “Well, we’re real glad you’re here today, and we’d love to talk to you, but right now we want to focus on our daughter’s race. Maybe we can talk afterward?”

The man nods. “Of course. I’ve been looking forward to this race all week. She’s something special.”

“We think so,” Jack says without taking his eyes off the track. The girls are lining up in their lanes. Ellie is poised and confident. They’ve talked a lot about this race, about how the only thing they expect from her today is her best effort. They’ve always — Jack especially — been reluctant to put too much pressure on their kids.

Ellie breaks her own record by two seconds. The reporter assigned to the story tries to get Jack and Bitty to talk about their own athletic accomplishments. Bitty shakes his head. “If you don’t mind,” he says, “we’d like this moment to be about Ellie. A lot of words have already been written about us.”

“Ellie’s the story today,” Jack adds. “We’re just her dads.”